My Top Ten Cinematic Experiences of 2010 | #9 Jury Duty

by twhalliii
December 16, 2010 6:31 AM
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Note: For a complete list of my favorite films of 2010, please visit my wholly deficient list over at criticWIRE.

Obligatory Repetitive Introduction
In the past, in lieu of ranking movies and being held hostage by the dissonance between the film release calendar and my own experience of the ebb and flow of filmgoing, I have listed my favorite cinematic experiences of the year. I want to get back to that; as the way in which I get to watch movies and talk about them continues to diversify, as the idea of cinematic experience expands to multiple devices, formats, cities, communities, I think this list is here to stay. The age of the theatrical release calendar is dead for me; we’re living in a new time, where the movies can be found in every area of life, from online conversations to your home entertainment system, the back of a car seat to a projection screen at a restaurant, your phone to a portable tablet. So, I am going back to my old model, probably for good; over the next ten days, I’ll be posting my Top 10 Cinematic Experiences of 2010. Not necessarily films (although sometimes), these are the experiences that defined my year in film culture. Subjectivity alert!

9. Jury Duty: River Run, Philadelphia, New Orleans and DOCNYC

I started working in independent film in 1997; I was hired to work in New Media at IFC and Bravo, covering film festivals and exhibiting film in the high speed online world. That means, if you count a two year hiatus in the early 2000’s, I have worked in the New York City film world for roughly thirteen years or so; 2010 marks the first time I was ever invited to serve on the jury at another film festival. Not that I minded and I am not complaining, but what surprised me most was how an initial jury invitation from the very good people at the River Run Film Festival turned me from a jury virgin to serving on no less than four film festival juries this year. When it rains...

One of the reasons this was a great experience for me was that I got to see how many other festivals operate in terms of their guest services, film choices, pass process, projection and operations; I can honestly say that most of these events were doing great work, their priorities were excellent and, given the state of non-profit and film festival funding in this country, were doing their best to show top quality work to audiences literally starved for choice at the movies. It was incredibly heartening to see so many people working at film festivals, creatively scrambling to make their events great, always putting the films front and center and always engaging within their respective communities. If nothing else, a film festival is a near-perfect vehicle for showcasing the power of storytelling to bring people together in dialogue with ideas and artists. These events all understood the power they were harnessing.

Winston-Salem, NC. Home of The River Run International Film Festival

So, it did come as a surprise to me when, writing an innocuous piece on the Filmmaker Magazine blog welcoming filmmakers to IFP Film Week, my thoughts came under assault from a battery of comments claiming collusion among film festivals to only show certain films, reject others, etc. Here is a nice sample of the opinions in the comments:

"The biggest problem for new filmmakers is that film festivals, like everything else in American entertainment culture, have become markets and markets driven by sales agents, high-profile broadcasters and distributors. If everything falls in place and you get extremely lucky, there is still a chance to succeed. But if you look around the festival circuit, the same films play at all the best fests. It is hard to be heard. Factor in the ease with which somebody can make a good-looking but unsubstantial film due to the technology, and you've got a real mess."-- Helmut

"Among independent filmmakers, there is the pervasive feeling that favoritism is rampant in the selection process at film festivals. This belief is having a negative effect on filmmakers, spawning cynicism and alienation, and weakening our community. Some dismiss this charge as merely the "losers" engaging in sour grapes whining. I don't think this is true, not for most. I have attended nearly 20 film festivals so far this year, listened and talked to numerous programmers and festival directors, and of course filmmakers, and I believe there is a significant problem with bias and favoritism -- not at every festival, but certainly at too many. This elephant needs the spotlight of discussion." -- Stewart Nusbaumer

Which, whoa. Having worked in festivals for years and years, I can tell you that there is a major disconnect between these representations and reality. There is more on this blog post coming in the future, so I won't steal the thunder of that piece, but needless to say, having worked at several film festivals and now having spent the heart of my year serving on other festival juries, there are really great events out there who only want to do what is best for filmmakers and the audience. I found that to be very heartening; no cynicism, it was a great experience and an honor to serve. I learned a ton, and there is nothing more important to me. My 2011 is wide open at this point. (*shameless pandering*)

#10 Twitter! Argh!

Memory Lane

Best Of The Decade
Top 10 of 2009
Top 10 of 2008
Top 10 of 2007
Top 10 of 2006
Top 10 of 2005
Top 10 of 2004

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More: Industry


  • Stewart Nusbaumer | December 16, 2010 10:21 AMReply

    When on a jury, you don't receive anything in exchange? Accommodations? Transportation? Costs? Friendship? Never? How about a boost to self-esteem? Networking opportunities? How about ego? All benefits are not material, although in present day America that is a popular myth. And all motivation on the festival circuit does not spring from only the love of film. I can raise my hand on that one.

    If your motivation is mostly good, nearly all good – OK, let’s just say all good – then why not seriously examine film festivals instead of simply dismissing the large number of filmmakers who are suspicious of the process? Do you consider all of them wrong? Are they all conspiracy theorists? These are the troops on the front line, struggling, sacrificing....

    As for you knowing what I don't know, that is interesting but I have no idea how you can come to that conclusion.

    Festivals are not merely competing against each other for the best films. Also, "best films" lack an objective criterion, so it is a concept easily manipulated by subjectivity which makes it a handy cover since it's also a concept that cannot be refuted. Have you heard of Premier-itis? This is rampant on the circuit, right? Yet, audiences don’t give a crap about premiers -- since at a festival nearly every film is a primer for the audience. And premier-itis ends up diminishing the best films for an audience, right? How about submissions through the back-door? The old boy-girl network that relies heavily on paid publicists?

    I wonder where is the code of ethics to minimize special access and favoritism and exclusiveness in the selection process. Why isn’t there transparency? You say you are not blind, but I have not heard you say anything about the shortcomings of film festivals. Clearly you see some problems?

    Note, where you write the "opposite of truth," this does not pertain to me since I am not utilizing an either/or construct. My epistemology is not a hard ball. I believe there are good fests, there are some that are less, and there are a few that are a fraud. It seems to me this is a reasonable position. And it seems to me that all patriots of independent film should work to make our film festival circuit better and reassure our filmmakers that they are not being screwed by the system.

  • twhalliii | December 16, 2010 8:29 AMReply

    That's not soliciting for a job, Stewart. I'm saying I am available for Jury Duty. There is no financial exchange that takes place; I just watch movies and vote, on my own time, no money involved. I have two jobs and don't need work in the festival world. I have no vested interest in remaining silent or staying blind to problems; your accusations of collusion among film festivals tells me that you don't know as much as you think you do about how festivals work. The reason many films play multiple festivals is because they are good and audiences want to see them. In fact, festivals COMPETE against one another to try and get good movies. If your mission is to show what you deem the best films, you go after the best films. It's not like we don't watch 1000 submissions and find most of them wanting; great movies from new filmmakers happen all the time, but many of them are not appropriate for our audiences.

    Anyway, the conspiracy theory is simply false and is, in fact, the opposite of the truth.

  • Stewart Nusbaumer | December 16, 2010 8:14 AMReply

    "...there are really great events out there who only want to do what is best for filmmakers and the audience."

    I don't disagree with that. I could run off a list of excellent festivals right now. (In fact, I am now writing a list of my favorite film festivals of 2010.) What I was writing about, and what you quote, is the widespread dissatisfaction among filmmakers about those fests that do engage in bias and even worse. Clearly there are these festivals.

    Good fests are good, bad fests are bad, but the difficult part is grasping how many are good and how many are bad. This number does not appear to be insignificant, but I don’t know what the number is. Whatever, something should be done because more and more filmmakers are being turned off and feel cheated by the festival network.

    What I found disturbing about your post is after you defend film festivals and seem to imply there are no problems you then ask festivals to hire you. That is, you make clear that you have a strong vested interest to remain silent and/or blind to the problems that do exist in film festivals. You solicit from those who you just defended! Incredible!